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The Upper Midwest: A Road Trip for 2021 - Part II

Updated: Mar 2

"Travel leaves you speechless; then turns you into a storyteller."

- Ibn Battuta


Now just five days into my two-week Upper Midwest road trip, I would be focusing on completing the Dakotas in just two days. What I had to look forward to, in the nearly 1,000 miles of driving ahead of me, was lots of wide-open spaces, along lonely highways with few services and sparsely populated communities. Out there, away from the interstates and cities, the landscape is a patchwork of rolling hills, vast tracts of farmland and vistas of majestic proportions.


August 4, 2021 - Wednesday

My goal first thing that morning was to get to Richland County quickly, the last of the counties for North Dakota, and place the state squarely in the "completed" bucket. Somewhere south of Crookston, Minnesota, I paused to get this photo of the early morning sun rising over the farmlands.

 

About two hours later, I crossed the Red River into Wahpeton, North Dakota, county seat of Richland County, officially completing North Dakota. Eighteen states down, thirty-two to go. On my way back into Minnesota, the traffic suddenly came to a stop on the bridge that spans the Red River. A family of wild turkeys had emerged from the brush on the Minnesota side and was crossing the highway.


Next, I turned my attention to South Dakota. I soon crossed the Bois de Sioux River at White Rock into South Dakota's northeast corner and started my inward migration to collect the remaining counties in the northeast quadrant of the state, mostly along SR 10. I drove as far west as US 83, turned south and then caught US 212 eastward, back across the state to Watertown, South Dakota. Accommodations that night were courtesy of the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson. It was fine as hotels go, but somewhat more dated and lacking polish compared to the Marriotts I had frequented up until then.


August 5, 2021 - Thursday

I had one goal in mind that Thursday -- finish South Dakota. And that's exactly what I did first thing that morning. Not far from Watertown is Deuel County, the last one I had not yet been to. Crossing into it early that morning officially wrapped the state up for me and all of its 66 counties. Nineteen states down and thirty-one to go. The remainder of the day was spent picking off counties in western Minnesota as I made my way up to Wadena.


Driving through Yellow Medicine County, I stopped in the town of Canby to get these great photos. The first one is of the Lund Hoel House which features a museum and tours of the interior. The second photo is of the Centennial Memorial Park just a block from Lund Hoel House.

 

Somewhere along my northward journey via US 75, I spotted this cluster of structures that struck me as being a perfect aesthetic portrait of the Midwestern farms I continued to see on my road trip.

 

On my way through Benson, Minnesota, I snapped a photo of the stately Swift County Courthouse.

 

The rest of the day I drove a twisting route in and around St. Cloud, Minnesota, collecting more unvisited counties. I finished the day checking into the AmericInn by Wyndham Wadena, which I would describe as an adequate hotel for the money.


The Headwaters of the Mississippi River - August 6, 2021

Northern Minnesota was blanketed in a thick layer of fog that morning, but not so thick that driving would be hazardous. I had plenty of time to make my goal of reaching Duluth, Minnesota that day, so I took a slow, meandering course northward to Mahnomen, Minnesota, then connected with SR 200 where I pointed my car eastward. By the time I arrived in Mahnomen, the fog had lifted. As I drove east on SR 200, I watched the landscape slowly change from open farmland to dense boreal forests of spruce, birch, aspen and fir trees. Forty-eight miles east of Mahnomen, I arrived at Itasca State Park -- and the Headwaters of the Mississippi River.


This was my first visit to the park -- it had been on my bucket list of places to visit for years. Adjacent to the parking lot is the Mary Gibbs Mississippi Headwater Center, complete with large-scale 3D maps, a gift shop and a restaurant/cafeteria. Because of the pandemic, the cafeteria was closed, but they did have vending machines. From the visitor center, a well-maintained, broad pathway leads you another 800 feet to the actual site of the Mississippi River headwaters.

 

The precise place where Lake Itasca drains out, releasing the first trickling gallons of the Mississippi, is just 18 feet across and is surprisingly shallow. Whether by nature's design or intentionally engineered by the stewards of the state park, boulders are scattered across the headwaters to make traversing the nascent river on foot possible -- without getting wet. Standing there, witnessing the birth of one of the world's most iconic and mighty rivers, you feel a sense of awe as you contemplate what it becomes as it winds its way south toward the Gulf of Mexico. Over the course of its journey, it passes through and forms the physical border of ten states, while defining the western and eastern halves of the nation in the abstract. Along its banks rise the great cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. It is a cultural treasure and a living, rolling metaphor of achievement through steady, tireless, incremental movement. Great things begin with small steps.


There were lots of park-goers the day I was there so getting pristine, unobstructed photos of signage and landmarks was somewhat of a waiting game. I tried to get a photo of the headwaters that was devoid of tourists, but this was the closest I could get:

 

This is Lake Itasca looking south from the headwaters.

 

There are lots of scenic trails in and around the park, including this bridge spanning the young Mississippi River and the wetlands surrounding it.

 

Barely a river at this point, I took this picture of the infant Mississippi, pushing through a mass of cattails, from a small bridge along SR 200.

 

I wouldn't pass an opportunity to visit this park if you are in the area. It's easy to access and the hike to the headwaters from the parking lot takes less than two minutes. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., but closed during the winter months. Admission to the park is $7 per day, per vehicle.


The North Shore of Lake Superior - Highway 61

After leaving the park, I made my way north again to Bemidji where I connected with US 2 heading east. Before long, I was rolling into Duluth, Minnesota, gateway to the North Shore of Lake Superior. Since I had arrived much earlier than I had anticipated, I used my afternoon hours to drive northeast out of Duluth along SR 61. I had no idea what a treat I was in for. This segment of my road trip turned out to be my favorite. The experience of exploring this corner of Minnesota was made all the better because of the extremely fair weather and warm air temperature.


SR 61 picks up where Interstate 35 ends in downtown Duluth. The highway is one of the most scenic roads in the country. Covering a distance of 154 miles from Duluth to the Canadian Border at Grande Portage, the North Shore Scenic Drive clings to the shoreline of Lake Superior while threading its way around, and sometimes through, the massive basalt escarpment that forms the northern edge of the lakeshore. The highway passes through quaint little towns where tourists can find cabins both rustic and well-appointed, gift shops, restaurants and other services. Eight state parks are scattered along this stretch of highway and there are plenty of vehicular turnouts where motorists can pause and take in the breathtaking views.

 

Leaving Duluth, SR 61 is a four-lane, divided highway with a speed limit of 60 mph. There are a few smaller scenic drives that branch off the highway where you can take your time, stop your car and soak in the magnificent views of Lake Superior. My first stop was at Split Rock Lighthouse where I toured the manicured grounds and beautifully restored buildings and paused to appreciate the spectacular views of the lake. You can even climb up inside the lighthouse to get views from the top. The lighthouse was built in 1910 and is one of the most photographed landmarks in Minnesota. Park admission is just $12 for adults ($10 for seniors, veterans, active military and students with ID; $8 for children 5 to 17). Summer hours are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

 

Leaving the lighthouse, I continued north on the highway as far as Taconite Harbor where I got these great photos of Lake Superior and a small island just offshore.

 

From there, I headed back south along the highway, stopping at Gooseberry Falls State Park. (Admission is $7 per day, per vehicle; hours are from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.) This was, perhaps, my favorite place along the North Shore. I lingered there for about an hour, wandering the trails, getting photos of the falls, the beaches of glaciated stone, and the lake itself. Here are a few photos of the area around the waterfall:

 

I decided to explore the shoreline side of the park where the glaciated, exposed basalt of the escarpment meets the water. I picked my way across the broad lip of scoured stone pockmarked with small pools of water and found a hidden cubby hole in the rock where I could slip down into a cozy cove facing the lake and rest on a rocky ledge just inches above the waterline. I felt immediately walled off from the world around me. There wasn't a soul on the shore but me. My entire world was reduced to an ancient stone bluff that enveloped me from behind, and the vast, ocean-like Lake Superior stretching out directly in front of me, mere inches away from where I was sitting. Both lake and sky bore the same fuzzy hue of powder blue which made separating them quite impossible. They blended together seamlessly like a painting where no care was made to define either feature. I had found my place of bliss -- my temporary spiritual connection to the world, and I regretted that my time there could be no more than just 15 or 20 minutes.

 

I vowed that this was a place I would return to one day.

 

Click here to learn more about Minnesota Highway 61 in this PBS documentary.


Accommodations in Duluth that night were courtesy of the Residence Inn by Marriott. The hotel is nice, just a short drive up the hill from downtown and close to restaurants and gas stations. It was in the parking lot of the hotel when the second wave of rental car misery hit me. I noticed a small panel missing from the passenger side of the car, just behind the sideview mirror. Quite honestly, I couldn't say whether it was missing when I picked it up, or if it somehow fell off the car during the past week. No inspection of the vehicle was made when I picked it up and no one checked my rental agreement as I exited the facility, meaning there was no one to report any existing damage to. I feared now that I might be held responsible for the missing panel.


August 7, 2021 -- Michigan and Wisconsin

Breakfast in the hotel lobby that morning was the standard fare of eggs and sausage served from chafing dishes. There were other options, of course, but these two items were the only ones suited to my carb-free diet. Over the next two days, I would endeavor to button up Wisconsin and its 72 counties. Fortunately, only 18 of those were unvisited.


As I was leaving Duluth that morning of the 7th, I tried to capture a picture of the city -- a flattering, brochure-worthy photo that would have elements of the older architecture alongside the modern buildings against the backdrop of the soaring hillside that gives the city core a vertical feel. I was unable to find that perfect location, but I did get this shot of the Historic Old Central High School building.

 

My journey out of Duluth took me east along US 2 across the St. Louis River into Superior, Wisconsin and eventually into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I spent less than an hour inside Michigan, before heading south on US 45 back into Wisconsin. I wound my way through Wisconsin cities and towns like Eagle River, Antigo, Shawano, New London and Green Lake, all just to pick up stray counties. The highlight of the day was driving along SR 55 through Menominee County -- it was like passing through a national park surrounded by trees and streams on a well-maintained road. Stevens Point is where I spent the night at a Fairfield Inn & Suites. All I can say about the hotel is that it served its purpose to provide a clean, comfortable room at a reasonable rate. The customer service, however, was abysmal.


August 8, 2021 -- Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa

The third and final wave of rental car misery came on the morning of the 8th as I was loading up my car in the parking lot. The rental car they issued me had no license plate -- I knew that before I left the airport. Instead, there was a temporary tag taped up inside the rear window. Unfortunately, I didn't pay close attention to the expiration date printed on the tag -- August 9th. That meant it was officially expiring the next day with six full days remaining before I was scheduled to return the car to the airport in Omaha. That also meant I could be pulled over and cited at any time during the final portion of my road trip. How this discovery played out for me was constant vigilance on the road, always scanning the highway for state patrol cars and feeling somewhat less enthusiastic about being out on the open highway. It raised my anxiety level that morning as I continued traveling in Wisconsin -- a state forbidden by the rental agreement.


I sometimes listen to NPR when I'm out on the road. That morning, I tuned in to hear a segment about a woman who was talking about how mindfulness and meditation helped her overcome her own fears, anxiety, doubt and other demons — how she had become bigger than all those things. Her name is Sharon Salzberg and she was talking about her book Real Change. In her radio interview, she reminded us that anxiety is unavoidable -- that it always knocks on our door. She recommended that instead of ignoring it when it comes knocking, that we "let it in and invite it to tea," but that we not allow it to wander through our house. She says we should learn to just carry it and recognize that it is a temporary experience and not who we are. As someone who tends to slam, lock and bolt the door on anxiety, I found tremendous comfort in what she said and offered silent gratitude that the message came when it did. For the most part, I was able to let go of the anxiety around my rental car issues because, when viewed objectively, they did not serve me or my journey.


All that day, I was chasing down the remaining unvisited counties of Wisconsin, which took me through the cities of Osseo, La Crosse, Viroqua and Richland Center. Viroqua was an unexpected jewel along the highway -- it is quaint and picturesque with a main street that is the epitome of small-town America. I crossed the Mississippi River a few times between Wisconsin and Minnesota to pick up counties on both sides, then put Wisconsin in the "done" column when I entered Green County along the southern border with Illinois. Twenty states down, thirty to go. Here's a shot of the Mississippi River valley somewhere north of La Crosse, Wisconsin, but taken from the Minnesota side.

 

Passing through the northwest corner of Illinois, I pointed my car southwest and eventually rolled into Iowa's Quad Cities -- Davenport to be specific. My stay at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Davenport Quad Cities that night was, compared to the previous night's stay, sublime. The property is newer and clean and the rooms are extremely comfortable. And the customer service? It was outstanding.


August 9-12, 2021 (Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri and Kansas)

The next four days were a blur of asphalt and mile markers. I put nearly 2,000 miles on the odometer during that time. On the 9th, I left Davenport, heading north into Minnesota. At Rochester, I swung west across the southern tier of the state, picking off the remaining counties until I got to Pipestone County, the 105th new county I visited on this road trip, and the last of Minnesota's 87 counties. Twenty-one states down, twenty-nine to go. I overnighted at the Courtyard Sioux Falls in, you guessed it, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I give this hotel a resounding thumbs-up.


On the 10th, after leaving the hotel, I explored the city center a little and found time to walk down to Falls Park where you can see the actual cataracts along the Big Sioux River.

 

From Sioux Falls, I headed back east, this time through the northwest corner of Iowa, sweeping across the northern tier of the state in a zigzagging pattern to collect more counties. I landed that evening at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Waterloo Cedar Falls. I would also give this hotel a thumbs-up rating.


Breakfast in the hotel on the 11th was cheese omelets and bacon, perfect for my no-carb diet. Driving that day would consist of Iowa, more Iowa and still more Iowa. In a circuitous route dictated purely by a need to visit remaining counties in the western portion of the state, I passed through some lovely landscapes of gently rolling farmland. On a small country road in the middle of nowhere Iowa, I came upon the Hanover Historical Village. It is a modest collection of beautifully restored houses and buildings from a bygone era. It is situated in Buena Vista County at the intersection of county roads M-27 and C-65. The closest major city is Cherokee, about 20 miles to the northwest.

 

Later that afternoon, I passed through Ames, Iowa, home to Iowa State University, on the way to my hotel in Des Moines. I stayed at the Residence Inn Des Moines Downtown. I would absolutely return to that hotel for any future visits to Des Moines. It was very comfortable, very modern and the staff was very friendly. Just a few blocks away are some great restaurants along Court Street. The temperature downtown when I arrived was 94°F, but with the heat index that day, it felt like 104°F.


The next morning on the 12th, I got this picture of Court Street near the hotel and the historic Polk County Courthouse in the distance.

A few minutes later, I drove over to the state capitol building and got these spectacular shots of the capitol and downtown Des Moines from the western edge of the capitol campus.

 

The 12th was also the day the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines was starting, after having missed the 2020 season due to the pandemic. The only other time the fair was cancelled was during World War II. Though I'm not from Iowa, it was clear that the state fair was a very big deal indeed for most Iowans. If I had more time, I would have set an extra day aside to spend time there. The other interesting event happening in Iowa that day was a Major League Baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees. For the first time ever, an MLB game was being played at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa, home to the baseball field made famous in the 1989 film Field of Dreams.


There weren't many unvisited counties left in Iowa. To claim them, I headed east out of Des Moines for about 90 miles to Williamsburg, then south to Sigourney, then west again toward Indianola. When I crossed into Warren County, I officially completed Iowa, placing it, along with all 99 of its counties, in the Done column. Twenty-two down and twenty-eight to go.


Back on Interstate 35, I headed south into Missouri and toward Kansas City. I stopped in Kansas City for an hour or so to play the slots at Harrah's Kansas City, but left a little poorer. Back on the road, I pushed on into Kansas, taking the Kansas Turnpike for the first time in my life, and wound up checking in at the Fairfield Inn in Topeka -- the capital city of Kansas. It was an older, dated property with ugly stained and orange carpeting in the room. I couldn’t really complain, though — I was getting the room for cheap.


August 13-15, 2021 -- The Final Days on the Road

Over the next few days, I attempted to chip away as much as possible the unvisited counties in Kansas and Nebraska. I would not have time enough to complete either one. With a quick breakfast and a to-go cup filled with hot coffee, I set out at dawn on the 13th heading west on Interstate 70. Just before Abilene, Kansas, I turned north toward Clay Center. Clay Center turned out to be somewhat of an oasis in the middle of nothing. In all seriousness, I didn't pass through a single town on the way up from the interstate -- a distance of about 35 miles. Once I got to Clay Center, I found a bustling little town of activity and services, including a good-sized aquatic park on the west side. I also found this interesting mural painted on the side of a downtown building.

 

From Clay Center, I headed due west along US 24 as far as US 83, a few miles shy of Colby, Kansas. That's where I headed south on US 83 to I-70 and then eastward again to Salina, Kansas (pron. suh LINE uh). I overnighted there at the Fairfield Inn & Suite Salina. The property appeared to have undergone a recent renovation. My room, however, was completely plain and unadorned. The recently painted white walls were devoid of the usual bland artwork you normally find in hotel rooms. The walls were so bare, in fact, that my own movements and voice produced an audible echo. The room rate was unbeatable, though, so I guess you get what you pay for.


For dinner, on the advice of the hotel front desk staff, I went to Jalisco, a Mexican restaurant just down the street. I must have arrived just before the rush because there was no one in the dining area. By the time I left, there were no available tables. The fajitas were sizzling, savory and satisfying. They were prepared with chicken, beef, and shrimp cooked with bell peppers and onions. On a separate plate they brought out the shredded lettuce, sour cream, pico de gallo and guacamole. It was completely keto and completely delicious.


On the morning of the 14th, I headed north out of Salina and into Nebraska. My goal was to collect as many counties in Nebraska as I could without winding up too far away from the airport at the end of the day. This would be my last full day on the road. I passed through the Nebraska cities of York, Columbus and Norfolk (they pronounce it "NOR fork") before turning west until I connected with SR 14. From there I headed south toward Grand Island, Nebraska. Inexplicably, hotel rates were super high that weekend, even though there were no major events taking place locally. The best I could do was to get a room at the Boarders Inn. It is a sprawling complex on a frontage road that seems to be in decline. It is not a property I would recommend, dear travelers, unless you are trying to save a little money.


As a sidenote, as I was passing through Stromsburg, Nebraska that day, I heard on the radio that Texas-born troubadour and songwriter, Nanci Griffith, had passed away. She was one of my favorite musical artists and an epic talent. I spent the next hour listening to her music and reveling in the articulate, masterful legacy she left us.


Going Home

Leaving the hotel and heading back to Omaha that morning felt a little like I was facing Judgment Day. I still didn't know if the rental car company would know that I had driven outside the permitted area or if I would be held responsible for the missing panel, or even if I would, in a cruel twist of fate after having driven more than 7,000 miles, be stopped just short of the finish line because of my expired tabs. The closer I got to the airport, the worse my anxiety became until finally, in the last mile or so, I just numbed myself and prepared for the worst.


And the worst never came. Not even a tiny version of it. The employee at the car rental return area did not even look at my vehicle. She only asked me if I filled the tank, which I did in Carter Lake, Iowa (an odd exclave of Iowa marooned on the Nebraska side in 1877 when a flood redirected the course of the Missouri River. You have to drive through it to go from downtown Omaha to the airport). Breathing a huge sigh of relief, I made my way to the gate and boarded the plane for Seattle.


By the end of my two-week road trip, I had added another 180 new counties to my growing total, which bumped my "percentage of the United States completed" up to 67.3%. To illustrate the amount of territory covered during those two weeks, here are the before and after pictures of my U.S. county map.

 

Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!

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